- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then NASA Director Michael Griffin is giving the old hats of Apollo a compliment indeed. Last week, NASA unveiled its plan to return man to the moon, and eventually to Mars, as President Bush outlined in his Vision for Space Exploration. Like the Apollo program of the 1960s and ‘70s, NASA envisions the use of a crew capsule and lunar lander to ferry astronauts to and from the moon’s surface.

“We did not set out to make it like Apollo,” Mr. Griffin said. “We looked at every vehicle, but people began to realize that the Apollo guys got it right.” There are some differences, however, in both design and function. While Apollo’s purpose was almost strictly to get men to the moon and back, with scientific study being a secondary consideration, the new program will focus on establishing a permanent lunar base, which will (eventually) serve as a way station to Mars. This means the new designs will have to allow for more astronauts (perhaps four per lander), larger cargo holds and longer missions (months instead of days).

No doubt some will grumble at the $104 billion price tag; but we’re more concerned about the timetable. NASA says it is aiming for a moon shot in 2018 — 13 years from now. Just consider that 13 years before 1969 — when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon — NASA didn’t even exist. And back then there were political considerations, like beating the Russians, to motivate skeptics in Washington. With the Cold War over and little chance of another country funding such a expensive challenge, NASA will have to rely on consecutive administrations’ and Congresses’ — not to mention the public’s — spirit of exploration.

Fortunately, the current administration is committed to the project. NASA’s priority then is to move as quickly as possible, so that future administrations have little choice but to go along. Mr. Griffin has already accelerated the project by a full two years from what former Director Sean O’Keefe had in mind. But NASA could also help its chances by phasing out the shuttle fleet sooner than the current 2010 deadline, when a new president could easily change NASA’s priorities. Also, the longer the shuttles operate, the greater the chances of another catastrophe. If that happens, manned missions might cease altogether.

As useful as the shuttle program has been in the past, and that is debatable, the fear is that a president who doesn’t share Mr. Bush’s vision would simply continue it for political reasons, like maintaining America’s space presence. Now that NASA has taken the first steps toward a greater future, it must ensure that the political will continues to follow.


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